Think "workplace diversity," and people of various races and ethnicities likely come to mind. But those with disabilities are a group not to be forgotten.
In fact, they "represent the largest 'minority' group in the country, with the National Census reporting one person in five having a disability significant enough to affect their life functions. Twenty percent of the population is a pretty large minority," notes MaryAnn O'Toole, director of academic computing in the New Media Center of The Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University.
Yet since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which provides a foundation for employee accommodations, was enacted in 1990, the employment rate of people with disabilities is virtually unchanged, according to the U.S. Census.
"The disability studies programs that are springing up across the country are recognizing the frequent absence of qualified people with disabilities and seeking to remedy it," O'Toole says.
Still, recruiting and accommodating faculty and staff members with disabilities has its challenges, the most obvious one being money. There are costs associated not only with advertising open positions in publications that target readers with disabilities, but also with making the necessary changes to accommodate whatever the employee needs, beyond what has (or should have) already been done to meet ADA requirements.
"The University of Illinois is like many universities in that its support of people with disabilities is minimal," maintains Robin Jones, director of the Great Lakes ADA and Accessible IT Center located at the University of Illinois, Chicago. "Historically, universities have not supported people with disabilities in many ways, due to issues of cost, and stereotypes associated with different disabilities such as mental illness."
The structure of higher ed institutions, which can make modifying policies difficult, is another barrier to overcome. Contractual relationships such as unions are also part of the mix.
"We have found that the majority of issues associated with disability arise with existing employees who acquire a disability after they have been hired, or the fact that a disability that did not require any accommodation was exacerbated over time, and traditionally, many faculty and staff stay within university systems due to the good benefits provided," says Jones, who is also a member of the Chancellor's Committee on the Status of Persons with Disabilities at UIC.
But professional isolationism and lack of supportive teaching environments are often problems that disabled faculty members face, explains Morgan Appel, director of education for University of California, Irvine's continuing education division.
The issue does not necessarily exist because schools have forgotten about the disabled. "The degree to which universities actively recruit differently abled faculty and staff varies from campus to campus, but the majority of postsecondary institutions place value on the endeavor within the context of policies and procedures documents," Appel says.
"I think that universities recruit and accommodate faculty and staff with disabilities poorly or not at all. That said, I think that we're doing a better job here at Syracuse University than most," says Steve Taylor, co-director of the New York school's Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies. "We have one of two deaf law professors in the U.S. here. Our university and the College of Law have designed fairly extensive accommodations that are not perfect, but very good."
Sue Kroeger, director of Disability Resources and ADA/504 compliance officer at the University of Arizona, Tucson, says her institution makes "no special effort to recruit faculty, although disability is represented in the 'best practices' recruitment guidelines that are distributed to search committees." She asserts, "If we really want to have disabled faculty, then we will need to make a much more deliberate effort."
The idea of the disabled as a disadvantaged minority group is not universally recognized, nor is the need for affirmative action to recruit applicants with disabilities, notes Rhoda Olkin, a disability activist and professor of Clinical Psychology at Alliant University in Walnut Creek, Calif.
Olkin, who is physically disabled, knows what it feels like to be held back by administrators who may not always consider the needs of disabled employees. "When I was hired, my school got busy putting in an elevator and making other physical changes, but the first party of the year was held in the provost's house, with no access except up a flight of stairs, and the first faculty retreat of my first year was held at another faculty member's house that was also inaccessible; I was unable to attend either event," she says. "It was four years before the faculty senate passed a motion that all faculty events were to be held in accessible locations."
Hiring committees should ensure basic access, but also nurture a culture of inclusion, Olkin notes.
For example, it's not just about whether a lunch table is made accessible so that a faculty member with a disability can sit there; it's about whether someone will sit next to that person.
Higher education has put most of its focus on obligations to students with disabilities--but this has come at the expense of faculty and staff, says Jones of UIC. She adds that there's often "a fear among staff and faculty to bring up disability-related issues within the university system. They tend to deal with them within their department versus the larger system and may be accommodated due to the philosophy of the existing leadership of a department or college rather than the overall campus administration."
What's an institution to do? Administrators can ensure the recruitment process includes advertising that is accessible to people with various abilities, Olkin advises. Is the ad available online and on an internet site that is compatible with screen readers, for those who are visually impaired? Is there a TTY number listed for applicants who are hearing impaired? Is there a contact person listed for requests for accommodations in the application process itself? Employment advertisements could also include information such as "Handicapped parking is nearby and available," or "The job is in an accessible building." With online employment sites not typically charging companies by the word, providing that additional detail doesn't become a cost issue.
Application forms also need to be accessible online. Voice dictation methods often make spelling, grammar, and format errors; how might that affect an applicant's application status?
In addition, hiring committees must be aware of laws stating how disabilities can be handled in interviews. An applicant's disability should not become the focus of the interview. In fact, it is generally illegal to discuss reasonable accommodations until after a job offer has been made. Olkin says committees should not fear that making changes to interviewing procedures provides advantages to applicants with disabilities, since not making changes is what provides an unfair disadvantage.
Interview language is also important. "Asking how a person will accomplish a task, such as asking a blind applicant how he or she will read dissertations, is tantamount to asking what accommodations are used, and thus is not allowed," Olkin notes. "Instead, the committee could ask if the applicant has experience supervising student dissertations."
After all, an employee's unique experience is what will contribute to a dynamic, enriched, and diverse campus.
Laura Gater (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Indiana-based freelance writer who writes frequently on human resource issues for a variety of business and medical magazines.